by Rachael McCampbell
Rachael McCampbell is an artist, teacher, curator, and writer who resides in the small hamlet of Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee. For more about her, please visit www.rachaelmccampbell.com.
I remember a day in my 20s when I was standing on the outskirts of Cortona, eating a nocciola gelato, overlooking miles of vineyards and olive groves. As I took in the smell of garlic and tomatoes simmering on a nearby stove, a group of Italian women passed by, arm in arm, chattering in their native tongue, and I thought, I wish I could take this all with me. And I have, so to speak, but there is no replacement for actually experiencing Italy firsthand.Like many art students, I completed a college summer abroad program in Cortona—a medieval hilltop town in Tuscany made famous by the book/film Under the Tuscan Sun. After graduating, I worked in Florence and have returned many times since. In September, I took twelve guests to a villa in Cortona for eight nights of what I called a “transformational journey.”
I provided a unique environment for them to reconnect with their creative selves, learn Italian cooking, and build new relationships. I didn’t specify what sort of creativity because not everyone was there to paint—some photographed while others wrote. Being an artist and art teacher, I made a point to paint with them (after all, there’s nothing as peaceful as deeply observing your surroundings), but I knew that it was even more important for them to take in ALL of Italy, store its nuances, and let their observations be a source for creativity for months to come.
To help deepen their time in Italy, I encouraged my guests to set daily intentions. Each night we gathered for dinner at a large table inside or al fresco and shared our impressions and inspirations. It’s magical how thirteen people can experience the same thing in thirteen very different ways. With much laughter, gentle teasing, and even a few tears, common themes arose for many of these accomplished, can-do folks. One being that they were grateful for the gift they had given themselves of crossing the ocean to unplug and explore their creativity.
When you are from an outcome-centric society like America, being present is not always easy. A few guests shared their expectations of finishing several pieces of art before the week was out. I understood. I put that same pressure on myself, but we weren’t at home, we were in Italy. So I encouraged them to slow down, take in their surroundings, and be playful.
Italy itself is a place that enlivens the senses, which in turn feeds creativity. The textured, peeling walls, the colorful fresh- food markets, Vespas buzzing through the narrow streets, the taste of fresh basil and buffalo mozzarella dripping with syrupy olive oil, ancient Renaissance masterpieces, and creamy cappuccinos are a few examples of things that awaken the senses there. Even the inconveniences of thick villa walls limiting wi-fi access, or bathrooms that offer only handheld shower appliances, were all blessings in disguise—forcing us to let go of our expectations and our electronic devices— to slow down and be present.
I have since heard from many of my guests that the paths they began and the friendships they created in Italy have continued. They have said that the paramount lesson of simply being, observing, and taking life in has remained. Their observational skills have improved, and they are looking at life from a new, more sensual perspective. They have slowed down to explore the ordinary and enjoy things as they are presented—in the moment. And if they shut their eyes and breath in deeply, they can even hear the distant church bells pealing throughout the cobblestone streets and hills of Cortona.
Rachael is an artist, writer, and teacher in Franklin, Tennessee, who leads Artistic Adventures Abroad, www.rachaelmccampbell.com.